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It’s time to fix things – a review of “Move Fast and Break Things”

When the topic of monopoly is raised the first person that many people will think of is Rich Uncle Pennybags – that icon of monopolistic wealth accumulation – with his large white mustache, top hat, bow tie, fancy suit, and cane. After all, he is quite literally the mascot of Monopoly, the board game, and he is commonly referred to simply as the “Monopoly Man” or “Mr. Monopoly.” In appearance, Pennybags is clearly a throwback to a bygone period. But has the era of monopolies truly passed, or has it merely changed? Pennybags may still be the “Monopoly Man” but today’s monopoly men are more likely to leave the collar buttons of their shirt unbuttoned, have slightly tousled hair, perhaps wear a hooded sweatshirt, and are more likely to be found in Silicon Valley than on the cover of a board game.

Monopolies are at the core of Jonathan Taplin’s excellent new book Move Fast and Break Things, wherein Taplin pulls no punches as he argues that the Internet – and by extension societies that are reliant on it – has become dangerously warped by the immense power that has been concentrated in the hands of a few people and companies. While Taplin, repeatedly, emphasizes that the Internet is built upon the principle of decentralization he depicts in grim detail the way in which control of the Internet is becoming ever more centralized. This is a book that does not flinch from calling out companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and PayPal as monopolies. Nor does Taplin refrain from criticizing the high-tech libertarian ideology that feeds the fantasies of many of these companies’ executives. Though Move Fast and Break Things is highly critical of the present state of the Internet, Taplin holds out hope (and lays out ideas) for how people can wrest control of the Internet from the hands of today’s monopoly men.

The question at the core of Move Fast and Break Things is, as regards the Internet, “How did something so promising go so wrong?” (20) From the outset, Taplin closely links this sense of “so wrong” to the gigantic growth of tech companies and to the fate of artists (broadly defined) struggling to make a livelihood in the digital era. And it is a changed era indeed! In 2006, as Taplin explains, only one of the top five most valuable public companies was a tech company (Microsoft) but by 2016 all five of the top five were tech companies. Furthermore, those huge companies seem liable to only get bigger – especially as the government officials with the power to crack down on monopolies seem to have little interest in doing so. And though these companies may offer tantalizing things to users (cheaper prices, faster searches, more connections, shinier phones) such offers have a profound dark side, as Taplin observes: “as more of our lives become digital, these new algorithmic gods will assume more power over us” (14).

Taplin briefly recounts the history of the early Internet, emphasizing its roots in the 1960s Californian counterculture of Stewart Brand, hippies, and eccentric early programmers working on ARPANET. Yet the decentralized, unruly, and freedom loving aura of the early Internet was swiftly seized upon by figures who were enraptured not only by the technology itself but by a fierce libertarian ideology. Figures like Peter Thiel (PayPal), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Larry Page (Google) – to name but a few – saw in the Internet the tools to build companies unhindered by pesky things like state taxes. And they were motivated by an Ayn Randesque philosophy of “who’s going to stop me?” Furthermore, as the rise of these figures was coupled with a period in US political history wherein regulations were being rolled back and corporations further empowered – there was indeed, no one willing to stop (or even significantly oppose) these figures. The result being that such individuals “created a world dominated by tech elites, with a set of rules that we are now condemned to live by” (87). And though Taplin is somewhat more forgiving in his portraits of Steve Jobs, Tim Cook, and Mark Zuckerberg (insofar as they seem to have some modicum of a sense of social responsibility), he still notes that their companies have fallen under the aegis of techno-libertarian thought.

While Taplin couches many of his critiques of these libertarian “tech elites” (and tech elitists) in brief biographical sketches of such figures, Taplin’s own biography represents a key aspect of his critique. Taplin has spent years in the culture industry, he has produced an impressive amount of music and movies, and he has worked with artists including The Band, Bob Dylan, and Martin Scorsese. There is a tinge of romantic nostalgia for the bygone days of the music industry, and though it was not without its problems, Taplin emphasizes that in those days musicians could make a decent (better than bare subsistence) living even if they were not the most famous acts, and they could be assured a steady flow of residual payments over the years. Of course, all of that changed as the Internet expanded. Whether it be file sharing or albums uploaded in full onto YouTube, musicians are still having their albums listened to – but the money from those listens is not necessarily flowing back to the musicians themselves. For Taplin the wretched irony of the Internet era is that more people are listening to music, reading books, and watching movies – but musicians, authors, and filmmakers are struggling to get by.

This story comes into sad relief in the form of Levon Helm, who played drums in The Band. Helm had managed to live rather comfortably thanks to the royalty stream from The Band’s music – which “continued right up until the introduction of Napster in 2000. And then it ended” (41). And when Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1999 – with the royalties having turned into a trickle – he was forced to hold small benefit concerts to fund his medical treatment. Helm may be a particularly woeful case, but Taplin makes clear that his is the fate shared by (or waiting for) many culture creators in the digital age. Certainly, the Internet pours plenty into the coffers of the top stars, but the “middle-class musicians” (40) like Helm are being left behind. Given Taplin’s allegiance to artists, it is not surprising that his most scathing portraits are of the tech libertarians Sean Parker (who helped found Napster) and Kim Dotcom (of Megashare).

One of the stunning ironies of the Internet is that this technological system built on principles of decentralization “is very good at creating winner-takes-all-scenarios” (121). And as one company starts to “win” – unless some force comes in to check their power – chances are they’ll keep on “winning.” Thus as Amazon comes to dominate online retail, as Facebook comes to dominate social networking, and as Google comes to dominate search – they wind up entrenching dominating positions from which they can not easily be dislodged. Furthermore, as these companies grow in size it becomes easy for them to simply buy-out would be competitors and thereby ensure that David actually works with Goliath. Beyond simply being monopolistic, these companies take on rent-seeking behaviors as they are able to force groups to play by their (the companies rules): booksellers have to play by Amazon’s rules, online advertisers have to obey Google’s dictums, and so forth. A lot of money is being made here, but it is flowing into fewer and fewer hands (even as that value is created by millions of uncompensated Internet users), as Taplin observes: “tech giants such as Google and Facebook may have more to do with economic inequality than we realize” (118).

To make matters more worrisome, as these giant companies have grown they have also carefully interwoven themselves into the halls of regulatory power with executives moving between government and the tech sector and with tech companies showering both political parties with plenty of campaign money. As a result, “the economy in which we all live is shaped along the contours of Google, Amazon, and Facebook dominance” (138). Alas, it is much more than just “the economy” that is shaped by these companies. Indeed, these companies increasingly act as traffic conductors, with major news publications becoming reliant on them to guide attention to their stories. Yet these tech companies seem to have endorsed the view that with great power comes zero social responsibility – they want the content from The New York Times and the songs from The Band, but these tech companies are not particularly interested in giving such content creators a fair share of the profits. And while these companies may howl at the idea of government regulation (or taxation) they are eager to defend themselves by holding up the first amendment (when, and only when, it suits them) and are eager to ensure the maintenance of the “open” Internet (an “open” Internet that has allowed these companies to close down their competitors). In Taplin’s description at a time when “data is the new oil” these tech companies have become the new oil barons “Google and Facebook are in the extraction industry” and they’re working feverishly to extract data from you and sell it for as much as they can (192).

Bob Dylan sang that he wasn’t “going to work on Maggie’s farm no more” – but today that song is working on Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook’s farms. And when you stream it, or download it, or “like” it, you’re working on their farm too.

Throughout Move Fast and Break Things, Taplin repeats the sentiment that the way the Internet is now is not the way it was meant to (or could) be. In Taplin’s estimation the “Internet designers are not treating us like humans, they’re treating us like lab rats” (214) or like data wells that exist solely to be monetized. While the sturdiness (and growth) of the tech titans serves as a cold reminder that the Internet is becoming more closely controlled, not less so. And though in some respects the Internet has ushered in an explosion of creative content, much of it is ridiculous rubbish (Internet celebrities famous for being Internet celebrities), and in many other cases there is no way for the creator to make a decent living from their work. While Taplin notes that it can be useful “to take vacations from our devices” (226), in order to counter Internet addiction, his argument is not for less Internet but for a changed Internet – one that emphasizes supporting artists and shoring up democratic institutions. A sort of “techno-determinism” has crept into too many discussions of the Internet that makes it seem like there is no other way than for a handful of corporations to dominate it, but Taplin emphasizes that such thinking creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Internet monopolies can be broken up, just as past monopolies have been broken up – and artists can band together to demand fair compensation for the work that they do. We can live in the world that Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook are building – or we can make them live in the world that we are building.

Now isn’t a time to move fast and break things. It’s a time to set a deliberate pace and make sure that we know what we’re building and what we’re breaking.

 

*          *          *

 

A quick and fiery read, Taplin makes a clear case that the harm being done by monopolistic technology companies outweighs the supposed benefits these companies deliver. Move Fast and Break Things (MFABT) makes a strong argument and puts forward serious solutions around which to agitate, and it does all of this in a highly readable fashion. It is an important contribution to discussions around the state of the Internet addled world particularly as Taplin focuses on the problem of monopolies and is willing to name techno-libertarianism as the ideology undergirding much of the mess. Though, towards the book’s conclusion, Taplin ever so briefly flirts with the idea that people are becoming overly reliant on their devices and platforms, it would be the height of dishonesty to try and frame Taplin as being hostile towards technology (as such) or the Internet. Indeed, Taplin repeatedly states his bona fides to shore up his position: it is not only that he has produced films and music but that he helped found one of the first “streaming-video-on-demand companies, Intertainer” (138), and he is currently a professor at USC where he is involved with the Annenberg Innovation Lab. In short, this is a book about how the Internet has gone awry written by someone who truly believes that it could be (and can be) different.

There are certainly aspects about MFABT that are reminiscent of other mass-market books that take a critical stance towards the Internet. Taplin’s arguments about monopolies are similar to those Robert McChesney makes in Digital Disconnect, while Taplin’s particular concern with the fate of artists recalls Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform. Yet, Taplin’s book is no simple retread of others ideas. Indeed, Taplin is able to document how much worse things have become since those other books were published – as the monopolies have only grown stronger. And it is only getting worse. One can easily imagine that the expanded paperback edition of the book will carry an additional epilogue in which Taplin will point to Amazon’s recent acquisition of WholeFoods as further proof of his claims. An element of particular importance is the political context in which MFABT appears, for Taplin’s book has as a backdrop a moment when all branches of government (in the US) are controlled by the Republican party. Thus, the prospect of anti-trust regulation being advanced seems highly fantastical. Granted, Taplin clearly makes the case that (in the US) both political parties are flush with tech company donations. Perhaps this is why Taplin places his confidence not so much in the government, or even activism, but in the ability of artists to band together to force the tech companies to meet their terms instead of it always being the other way around. Taplin does not go so far as to call for some sort of “content creators strike” – but such a move might not be too far off base. In short, this isn’t exactly a pessimistic book, but Taplin resists the urge to expound upon the digital utopia that is lurking just around the corner.

MFABT is at its best when Taplin is in full polemical form. Taplin seems to enjoy skewering the techno-libertarian 1%, and it is an infectious enthusiasm. Even if this schadenfreude never really goes anywhere insofar as those being skewered (for the most part) are amongst the rich and powerful. It can be amusing to expound upon the foibles of someone like Sean Parker – but scoffing at him isn’t going to change the amount of money in his bank account. Which is why it is so important that Taplin keeps returning to the matter of the ideology that underpins these figures. The individuals that Taplin holds up as examples are only the figureheads (or fountainheads) of an ideology – it is not just that these individuals need to be challenged, but that their entire ideology (which is widely dispersed) needs to be challenged.

Taplin’s focus on techno-libertarianism leads him to give a sort of soft pass to certain figures (like Zuckerberg, Jobs, and Cook) who he thinks are at least vaguely aware of the social responsibility they need to take. Yet it may be that the problem is not narrowly one of techno-libertarianism but of the larger belief that technology is a panacea. Sure, Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos may have clearly problematic ideologies – but Zuckerberg’s belief that Facebook will save the world seems equally problematic. Especially as all of the starry eyed talkof high minded values can function as a smokescreen to hide one’s true monopolistic intent. Yes, Zuckerberg may occasionally say nice things about democracy, but Facebook is hardly a democratic platform.

Which brings us to one of the main issues with MFABT, namely, that it is a book that will most likely speak to those who have already been convinced of its core message. But that core message isn’t really that monopolies are bad, nor is it that artists are being exploited online, it’s that the Internet could be different. And to be clear, such a core belief is quite widely shared. This belief may find clear expression in books like MFABT, but one also encounters it every time a new social network is launched that will “finally” take on Facebook or Twitter. Few are the people who want to admit that the Internet is the way it is because of some features inherent in the technological system itself. All appeals to the “neutrality” of technology, or arguments about technology that put all of the emphasis on economic facts, echo this sense that the Internet as it is now is not the Internet as it needs to be. This is a point that Taplin makes repeatedly: he notes that “the Internet was supposed to be a boon for artists” (106), that “It wasn’t supposed to be this way” (121), he highlights that “the Internet started out both decentralized and democratic” (247), and invokes figures like Kim Dotcom as “part of what has gone wrong with the Internet” (174) thereby suggesting that there is an alternative. The key concept is that something has gone awry, there is a bug that needs to be fixed so that the Internet can run properly. This is undoubtedly an appealing set of ideas. Particularly insofar as they allow people to continue buying things on Amazon, searching for things on Google, upgrading their iPhones, and hitting “like” on Facebook – while maintaining their belief that the fault lies with a handful of rich techno-libertarians and bought off politicians.

The problem certainly isn’t the technology itself. Right? Right!

Yet, at risk of being overly harsh, it does not actually make terribly much sense to claim of the Internet that “it wasn’t supposed to be this way.” On the one hand this is obviously true; however, to reach that truth reveals how this claim simply doesn’t hold up. For, as Taplin acknowledges, the Internet has its roots in a system for military communication, which was then steadily used to put scientific researchers in communication with each other. Was the Internet supposed to be dominated by Google and Amazon? Clearly not. But it also wasn’t supposed to be something being used by billions of people. It’s a Cold War communications technology. It has been, obviously, seized upon and utilized by the public to great effect – but we’ve come a long and twisted way from what the purposes for which the Internet was originally intended. And when the US government dumped the funds into the early Internet it’s doubtful that they imagined it would “be a boon for artists.” Sure, the early Internet was “democratic” insofar as it was funded by a democratic country and in those early days users had more input – but in those early days there were very few people using the Internet, they were using it for very limited purposes, and they hardly represented the complex cross-section of individuals that must work together for a democracy to function. Furthermore, that the Internet was “decentralized” isn’t because of some anarchic principle – it was decentralized so that communications could still reach their intended receive in the case of a nuclear war. Thus, it’s true that the Internet “wasn’t supposed to be this way” – but it wasn’t really supposed to be another way either. It was meant to allow military officials to communicate in the event of a nuclear attack – any other use exists outside the realm of how it was “supposed to be.”

The purpose here is not to say the Internet is useless, nor is the goal to claim that the Internet is forever tarnished by its military-industrial-complex roots. The point is simply to say that it’s fairly impossible to definitively prove that the Internet was “supposed to be” one way or another. It seems like it would be more honest to say something along the following lines: “at this point the Internet is being used for purposes that are very different from those that were envisioned by the groups who created the proto-Internet and early Internet. The questions about the purpose of the Internet are therefore incredibly fraught as their is no genuine “original intent” that can be appealed to.” Granted, such a statement isn’t particularly easy to digest.

Some further confusion around this matter bubbles up in terms of the early Internet’s link with the 1960s counterculture – and Stewart Brand, in particular. It seems that the hippies had a hand in appropriating this military communications tool (and nascent computer technology) and giving its “decentralization” a more rebellious and empowering feel. Yet, here too, it is worth proceeding with caution. “Counterculture” is a term that may sound very appealing to some, but it is a term that needs careful unpacking, it has a real historical meaning that may be quite different from the ideas that come to mind when someone comes across the term. After all, there was a lot going on that was countering the dominant culture in the 1960s – and the elements of the “counterculture” that seized upon computer technology were often white, often male, and often reasonably well-off. The computer, and dream of the Internet, were a new playground and frontier for those who were primed to think of themselves as explorers – not as the types of people who explorers have historically killed and exploited. The “counterculture” that celebratedthe early Internet and stamped it with utopian fantasies is not synonymous with the “counterculture” of student protests, civil rights, women’s rights, or the anti-war movement. They may have occurred during the same years and in many of the same places – but the “counterculture” consisted of many strands. The early computer enthusiasts who took psychedelic drugs and danced to the Grateful Dead are not the people who wrote the Port Huron Statement – they’re the people who wrote the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Unfortunately, when people look back on the “counterculture” roots of the Internet they often seem to confuse the two. But, alas, the corner of the “counterculture” that embraced the Internet from the outset was always fairly white, fairly male, and fairly libertarian. It was the anarchic ethos of the frontier explorer unencumbered by a sense of obligation who felt these new technologies empowered them to do whatever they wanted, not the anarchist ethics of Peter Kropotkin arguing that freedom depends upon mutual aid and a rigorous notion of responsibility. But this is a point that can easily be obscured when the term “counterculture” gets used overly inclusively.

In fairness, Taplin seems aware of this problem with those “counterculture” roots. A point that comes across clearly in his distrust of the “hacker” ethos of which John Perry Barlow (who wrote the aforementioned “Declaration”) is an advocate. When Taplin critiques how the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF, which Barlow founded) “has never met a hacker it couldn’t defend” (64) and notes that “the EFF is a symbol of our current era, a time when hacker ideology trumps common sense” (64) – it is obvious where Taplin stands. After all, figures flying the flag of the “hacker ideology” (like Parker and Dotcom) are amongst those Taplin most fiercely denounces. But the early advocates of that hacker ideology were often figures who occupied particular corners of the counterculture (like Brand). These were the people who were in love with machines, not the ones making impassioned speeches about the need to keep “the machine” from working.

One of the major villains in Taplin’s tale is Ayn Rand, and he credits her philosophy for helping provide the ideological foundation atop which many of today’s techno-libertarians have built. Taplin goes so far as to quote the scene from Rand’s The Fountainhead in which the tale’s hero defiantly boasts “who will stop me?” And thus, for the sake of contrast, it might be useful to think of one of the figures who Rand used as model for the villain of The Fountainhead, namely: Lewis Mumford. An iconoclastic and morally driven social critic, Mumford was a lifelong advocate of the need to put the “good life” ahead of the “goods life” – and he was concerned that the post-WWII romance with technology was leading humanity towards increasing servitude not increasing freedom. Though Mumford’s critiques may have had some influence upon some elements of the counterculture (emphasis on some) he kept his distance from it – and openly denounced its consumerist tendencies as well as the forces within it that seemed to be overly enthralled with computers. Writing in the 1960s, Mumford denounced the computer as “an authoritarian technology” and warned that it would not bring freedom and democracy but would come to be a sort of “new sun god” and an “all-seeing eye.” To put it bluntly, Mumford looked at the nascent days of computer technology and warned that the direction it pointed society towards was monopoly, consumerism, distraction, and control. Mumford was not alone in voicing such critiques of the computer and the parts of the counterculture that celebrated it: Jacques Ellul and Erich Fromm voiced similar warnings. While the early AI pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum warned of the ways in which people were assigning misplaced hopes on computers. True, these critics were concerned with the ideologies that surrounded various technologies – but they were also adamant in arguing that technology itself becomes an ideology. As, Mumford might have put it, you can try to use an “authoritarian technology” for democratic purposes but that doesn’t actually make it a “democratic technology.” No matter how much you may wish that the contrary was true.

Or, to put it in a deliberately provocative way, what if the problem really is the Internet? What if the reason why techno-libertarianism and monopolies have flourished with the Internet is because the Internet is predisposed not towards democracy but towards monopolistic control? It may well be that blaming libertarian ideologies and bought-off politicians is a distraction that keeps us from confronting the issue that is becoming harder and harder to ignore: there is something about this technological system that favors monopoly, surveillance, and centralized control. It isn’t that this technological system brings “freedom” but that it thoroughly redefines “freedom” and then forces its users to either accept this redefinition or be classed as Luddites.

If we want to talk about the monopolies controlling Internet technology, we need to be willing to talk about why it is that Internet technologies are monopolizing our lives. We need to actually talk about the technology, and we need to be willing to admit that there might be something about the technological system (as such) that is part of the problem.

Importantly, these critiques are not meant to take away from Taplin’s book, but to further the discussion to which his book contributes.

Move Fast and Break Things is an important and thoroughly enjoyable text that should be read by everybody who uses Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or (frankly) the Internet. Jonathan Taplin provides an impassioned polemic that is both informative and engaging. Readers will come away with a clear sense of the ideology that many of tech’s loudest advocates adhere to, as well as an unflinching sense of the way in which this ideology is shoring up its controlling position. And a major strength of the book is that Taplin avoids arguing that the solution to these technological problems is merely more technology. It’s a book that is definitely worth reading as it raises the thorny question as to just how complicit we are in helping to entrench these ideologies and monopolies.

You can search for Move Fast and Break Things on Google, post about it on Facebook, buy it on Amazon, and read it on your iPhone.

But Taplin would probably argue that doing such things is part of the problem.

And he’s got a point.

The Book

Move Fast and Break Thins: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon cornered culture and undermined democracy.

By: Jonathan Taplin

Little, Brown and Company – 2017

 

More Reviews

Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform

Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage

Robert McChesney’s Digital Disconnect

Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?

Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

 

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

3 comments on “It’s time to fix things – a review of “Move Fast and Break Things”

  1. notabilia
    June 30, 2017

    Great review – you’ve definitely made a compelling case for the worth of the book.

  2. Pingback: Living well in the technosocial world – a review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues | LibrarianShipwreck

  3. Pingback: The future looks expensive | LibrarianShipwreck

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